Equality in the gold mines

A great majority of the men who flocked to California in the early years of the gold rush were an industrious and enterprising bunch. As many as five out of six were young men between eighteen and thirty-five and they came from all parts of the United States as well as many foreign lands. When they got to the mines all found that in order to keep up with their neighbors hard work was required. Every man, regardless of his former station in life, was forced to toil with his hands and this commonality of shared labor became the great equalizer for the first few years in the mines. Former judges and governors worked hand in hand with outlaws and criminals, masters side by side with former slaves, scholars and teachers along with the illiterate. Everyman did business on his own account. Not one man in ten was an employee, much less the servant, of another.

Black and white miners

It was necessary for basic survival that everyone worked in one way or another. Doctors, lawyers and priests drove mule teams, cooked, baled hay, and hauled wood. One lawyer, who would become one of the highest judges in the land, peddled pocketbooks while another fiddled in a gambling house. A preacher washed dishes in a boarding house while a parish elder washed clothes. A faro dealer in 1849 San Francisco’s Bella Union had himself once been an eloquent preacher. Labor in the mines was dignified and honorable. Social distinctions were erased. It was the man with the weather beaten, strongly marked face who was listened to with respect and not the fancy clad dandy of the east. In many cases these rough looking men would be the richest around. A man who didn’t live by physical toil was considered a social parasite.

White and Chinese miners

It was by this sturdy and independent spirit that the early days of 1849 were known. And while gambling and drinking were common most men were honest and robberies and other crime almost unknown. Any man, simply by his own hard work, could turn to the mines and dig gold for his living. But during the harsh winter of 1849-50 things began to change. Supplies couldn’t reach the remote mines and that forced men into the towns and cities. There the lack of employment induced many to steal in order to live. This coincided with the influx of the Sidney Ducks and other criminals from across the world. Large gangs of thieves formed. Stealing cattle, horses and mules became so prevalent and organized that it resembled a legitimate business. Men could make as much as seven hundred dollars a month stealing horses. Murder became an almost daily occurrence. And in response to this strife and lawlessness arose the vigilance committees and the lynch laws that played such an important role in taming California.

Gold rush miners in Hangtown1849

 

 

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